‘She’s a very tough, tough woman’, Stephanie said, describing her mother.
Her mother has been the cause of much unhappiness in Stephanie’s life. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in coastal Queensland, Stephanie experienced frequent physical and emotional abuse within the family.
‘We dealt with a lot as children. My parents were not about looking after children. My earliest memory is of my mum fighting with my dad while he took off … Being the eldest, I was like the little punching bag. So I would get it. It was my fault …
‘Growing up for me was pretty much survival. If it wasn’t for the fact that my mother liked to cook, I’m sure we would have been starving. And I think that’s when people would have paid attention …
‘I don’t remember much. I have pain memories – I remember a lot of pain memories … No birthday cakes, no parties, not allowed friends over, just working all the time. Not allowed to sleep over – not anything. But I worked hard at school. That was one thing I liked, was school.’
She also enjoyed the gym classes she attended at the local Police and Citizens Youth Club (PCYC). The classes were free – which her mother approved of – and were held on Saturday mornings. Stephanie attended for a couple of years, starting in the late 80s when she was about 11.
One day Stephanie arrived at class and found her group had a new coach. Most of the instructors were female, she said, but this was a strong, muscular man. ‘He didn’t smile, he wasn’t friendly. That’s why I thought wow, he’s a real gym coach.’
While Stephanie was practising on some equipment, the coach came over to watch. As she worked, he put out his hand and touched her, then fondled her - ‘painfully’. ‘He was a big guy, and I was quite small, and it was just painful … And he wouldn’t stop … I hurt for days after that.’
Stephanie didn’t speak to anyone about what had happened. ‘I go into this zone – after these things happen I go numb.’ And later, ‘It never crossed my mind to tell anyone’.
She changed her schedule, so she was attending class at night, and gave up gym not long afterwards.
In the context of the abuse she experienced from her mother, ‘the incident that happened at the PCYC is like the tip of the iceberg’. Together they have been difficult to recover from.
When the family moved, Stephanie started at a new high school and was badly bullied. She moved schools again, eventually making friends and becoming a successful student. She went on to study, marry and have a large family.
At times she’s felt suicidal, which has led her to seek counselling. She has found self-help books another valuable resource. She belongs to a Pentecostal church and though she feels let down by the church community – ‘through this whole situation of trying to glean support, they say one thing and do another’ – her belief remains strong.
‘That’s one thing about faith. It’s given me hope. And that’s why I’ll always cling to it, because I need that hope … It means a lot to me.’
Her relationship with her husband is strong, though there were difficulties to overcome at first. ‘Things have happened in our marriage … because I couldn’t say no. Because I didn’t have anyone to talk to. And now he’s good because I’ve been able to put boundaries up and things like that.’
Stephanie is estranged from her mother and regrets that as a mother herself she didn’t have a role model to follow. ‘If anything I use what my mum did, twist it around the opposite way …’
With her oldest daughter now a teenager, she’s coming to terms with the frequent reminders of her own less fortunate teenage years.
‘She’s had the life that I never had … At the end of the day I’ve had to tell myself, that person that never got that, it’s okay, it’s all in the past now - this is your life now.’